Poetry and Literature From Latvia: 16 Books to Get You Started
Latvia, like its Baltic neighbors, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The tiny country (population under 2 million) with pristine forests, abounding in lakes and rivers, spent, what Anda Baklāne, literary critic and scholar put wryly, “700 years of slavery” under the Germans, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedes, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and a short period of Nazi occupation. Today Latvia is in effervescence, with literature playing a central role, and yet it wouldn’t be quite Latvian to be enthusiastic about it. Indeed, the country decided to portray itself in its marketing campaign for the London Book Fair as a nation of introverts. “We are different. Latvians can feel deeply confused when kissed on both cheeks…should you compliment a Latvian, they will turn red-white-red. Latvia is one of the world's most introvert [ed] nations. And so are our writers, of course. And we are proud of it. We allow our books [to] speak for us, since literature is the perfect world for introverts, ” said Una Rozenbauma, director of the campaign.
Although several Latvians began to write novels towards the end of the 19th century, the couple known as Rainis and Aspazija were, without a doubt, the most influential and beloved authors, today known as national treasures. Jānis Pliekšāns, nom de plume, Rainis, was born in 1865 and wrote plays, poetry and also practiced politics. His wife, Elza Rozenberga, known as Aspazija, was born the same year as Rainis, and was a journalist, author and feminist.
Between the two of them they spoke eight languages, were politically engaged socialists, and became known as leaders in the growing movement for Latvia’s independence but also in the creation of the country’s identity. A victim of Tsarist Russian crackdowns, Rainis was exiled to Russia, and after a brief return to Latvia the couple left again for Switzerland fearing reprisals because of their continued political activity. They spent 15 years in exile, returning to Latvia in 1920.
The Latvian state that was proclaimed in 1918 was short-lived, as it was for its neighbors, Lithuania and Estonia. Occupation by the Soviet Union meant thousands of dissidents were sent to Siberia, and the brief German occupation in 1941 annihilated almost entirely the Jewish population in Latvia.
During Soviet Latvia, a number of fine poets and authors were published, such as Aleksandrs Čaks, Albert Bels, Regīna Ezera, Juris Kunnoss, Zigmunds Skujinš, Imants Ziedonis, and Knuts Skujenieks, while Vizma Belševica’s work, although written during the Soviet period, was published in the 1990s. The shadow cast by the Soviet occupation was long, however, whether in terms of persecution of authors, or pressure on them to collaborate. Recently Jānis Rokpelnis, known as one of the greatest poets of his generation, admitted he had been recruited as an informant for the KGB. But Latvians seem open to knowing more about themselves and this painful moment of their history, and in May 2018, KGB archives will be opened to the public. One of the most fruitful literary undertakings to be born recently took inspiration from a project that writer Gundega Repše launched in 2011, which brought together 12 Latvian authors to write a short story collection about 20th century Latvia. From there, a more ambitious project called We.Latvia.The 20th Century developed; authors agreed to write historical novels, each choosing a specific period of time. So far 12 novels have been published in this series and two are already available in English; a third will come out later this year. The first book in the series, In the Shadow of Rooster Hill, is set in 1905 during Latvia’s unsuccessful revolution against German landlords and Russian political power, and is by journalist and author Osvalds Zebris. Jantar Publishing will bring out the English translation, by Jayde Thomas Will.
Author Pauls Bankovskis’ 18, translated into English by Ieva Lešinska and published by Vagabond Voices, focuses on a pivotal moment for Latvia, when it gained its independence. Bankovskis jokes that he doesn’t know how he ended up with the most important year in Latvian history: “This all started with an email exchange between all of us. It was a chain email so it was a mess. Somehow during this exchange we all ended up with a time frame. Maybe no one wanted this year, it was so important…”
Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk, translated into English by Margita Gailitis and published by Peirene Press, covers two periods of time during Latvia’s Soviet occupation, the first following the end of World War II, and again in the 1970s and 80s.
Poetry is an integral part of Latvia’s literary canon and is widely read by adults as well as children, ingrained in the culture from a time when traditional folk songs and poetry, or dainas were part of everyday life. Luckily a number of poetry collections are forthcoming, including the raw and powerful poems of Madara Gruntmane, to be published in a collection called Narcoses, by Parthian.
The Orbita Group’s poetry deserves to be discovered, and not just because it represents a certain Russian-speaking population. A collective of Latvian Russian poets, photographers, musicians and multimedia artists, it promotes Latvian poetry in Russian and also translates contemporary Latvian poetry into Russian.
Below is a selection of 16 books as a taster of Latvia's inspiring and compelling poetry and literature.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are the Market Focus countries at this year’s London Book Fair, 10-14 April 2018. Public author events around the UK are organised by the British Council Literature.
Banner image by Reinis Petersons